Zimbabwe – The Moral Choice

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 34, Spring 2005
By Letitia James

No moral issue has so captured the minds and hearts of New Zealanders more in recent times than the proposed New Zealand cricket tour to Zimbabwe. This is possibly because collectively we have it ingrained in our psyche now that playing sport within the boundaries of despotic regimes is something we don’t ever want to do again. If ever a country learnt a lesson about the need to see all of life within a moral framework, we learnt that from our bitter experience of hosting apartheid sports teams.

Most New Zealanders believe the cricket tour should be cancelled. Thankfully, they believe this for all the right moral reasons. The onus lies with the International Cricket Council and with NZ Cricket to cancel the tour, both in the interests of Zimbabweans and in the interests of cricket itself. International cricket should be wary of becoming sullied through association with the Mugabe regime.

It is not as though the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe was unknown to the international cricket authorities when the tour was planned. The atrocities committed against whole portions of the population in Matabeleland in the 1980s have been well documented. More recent graphic TV images of white farmers being driven off their land and the bulldozing of shanty towns creating the forced homelessness of more than 300 000 poor people has become our daily news diet. Each image speaks of appalling atrocities being enacted by a government which has long since lost any credibility. It is a situation which has bought condemnation all over the world. To its credit, the NZ Government has been very vocal in its opposition to the tour, laying out the issues in clear unequivocal form and putting them in moral terms. The Green Party, too, has taken a leading role in opposing the tour and in educating the wider public to its moral implications.

No one would envy Martin Sneddon his job at the moment. He is a thoroughly decent man caught up in a political and social storm which is deteriorating by the day. He sees himself and NZ Cricket in a no-win situation. As he says, ‘condemned if he does, and condemned if he doesn’t.’ But the issue is one about morality. He is right to say, ‘what about Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and China.’ If we argue for human rights, then these are four sports-playing countries which have human rights records ranging from marginal to appalling. Should we boycott all these countries? Should we stay home from China’s Olympics?

In an ideal world, there is an argument to say we should. But the reality is that we know that won’t happen. We also know that the powerful nations get away with human rights abuse (look at US and Russian prisons!) and the world sails on its merry way. But with a stand against a small country like Zimbabwe we can make a difference. Every Zimbabwean would know of it. It would give hope to millions who have none at the moment. They would know that some friends in a far-flung place cared enough to forego playing a sport that many love with a passion. That is significant. That is important. That is what places Zimbabwe in a different basket to China and other nations. With Zimbabwe we can make a difference.

In a recent interview on Prime television (5 July), Martin Sneddon said four times that huge monetary penalties applied to NZ Cricket would be applicable if the tour was cancelled ‘unjustifiably’. The interviewer sadly left unasked the question as to what constitutes ‘justifiable’ cancellation in this instance. How bad does a social situation have to deteriorate to reach a point where providing succour to the regime becomes ‘unjustifiable’? Would it need to be a re-enactment of the Sharpeville shootings in 1960, which galvanised world opinion against the apartheid regime? Or an uprising as in Soweto in 1976? What constitutes the position of ‘justifiably’ cancelling the tour? Are four million in need of food aid not enough? Would eight million be enough? Are 300 000 made deliberately homeless in winter time not enough? What if one million became homeless? Would that make it ‘justifiable’?

There is also an issue of personal responsibility. Despite the fact that NZ Cricket had claimed to have not put any pressure on its players, every New Zealand Black Cap invited made himself available to tour. That’s a bit sad. Do they represent a classic case of what happens when the principles of the common good are ignored in favour of unfettered individualism?

Their position places them in opposite sides to the handful of brave Zimbabwean players led by their first black international player Henry Olonga and test veteran Andy Flower. They took a human rights stand three years ago against the destruction of their country and were vilified at home by the government and never picked to play again. Olonga was recently in New Zealand to plead for the cancellation of the tour. On television news he asked a simple question. ‘If Mugabe was a white man doing what he is doing to his country and its people, would there be any tour?’ I think we all know there would not be. So, what part is the question of race playing in this whole scenario?

There is constant reference to the $2.8 million fine that would be enacted against NZ Cricket if the tour was to be cancelled and the $3 million lost through the withholding of visas by our government from any prospective Zimbabwean tour. Global cricket forms a small part of a world dominated by a worldwide economic system which enslaves millions to low wages and inhumane working conditions. Where do Christians draw the line in terms of our complicity with such systems? It is a matter of major importance.

That is the issue facing our country over the cricket tour. Professional cricketers form part of a global economic system. There is big money involved. No longer is a country able to make decisions independent of other playing members. All are locked into global capitalism. Professional cricket has become an industry like any other and plays the rules of that industry. It lies prostrate before the gods of the market place. Sky Television is part of one of the biggest corporations in the world. The ICC itself is a multi-million dollar business. There are millions of dollars invested in the NZ Cricket’s brand, in clothing apparel, in transport, hotels, cricket gear, in salaries for players and the infrastructure.

This is where the issue of morality comes in. Are there any moral guidelines still valid which guide the development of such a business? Of global capitalism itself? Isn’t this what the massive demonstrations outside G8 meetings these past few years has been about? People are saying: there must be moral principles that protect the weak and the poor. The issue is how do we protect the common good in the face of global economics which has profit not people at its heart? Isn’t the decision to go ahead with the tour mainly an economic one? Money speaks. Money is god.

The Church has always spoken strongly about economic justice and the protection of the poor. If we see the cricket tour of Zimbabwe not simply as two little nations playing a game they love but as a part of a global economic enterprise, then moral principles have to be applied. Otherwise we have no collective morality and settle for dog eat dog.

There is still time to re-evaluate the tour. New Zealand took a stand against the worldwide acceptance of nuclear weapons as a matter of principle. In this respect, we remain a light to other nations. To our shame, our government didn’t take a practical stand against sporting contacts with the racist regime in South Africa, though most people opposed them. In the case of this tour, we have a chance to add to the moral fibre of our backbone and stand with the oppressed majority of people in Zimbabwe. Such a position would place us alongside Henry Olonga and Andy Flower and against everything that the cricket-mad dictator Robert Mugabe and his cronies are doing to their country.

A moral stand now is something we could be proud of for generations.

Letitia James has twice visited Zimbabwe in recent years.

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